Planning the annual retreat

The annual School of Computing PhD Retreat took place earlier this week, and I am exhausted from all of the fun (and the planning!).

Traditionally, the retreat is planned and organised by a member of staff, but due to other commitments, the task was passed off to me and my co-student representative, Andreas Steyven. However, the short notice meant that we didn’t really have time to be planning a three-day retreat, so we decided to get a little creative (with the blessing of the Director of Research and another “responsible member of staff”).

With limited time both in our busy schedules before the retreat was to take place, Andreas and I decided to make the trip a bit relaxed and fun. We also knew that the rest of the students were pushed for time, so we decided to make it easy for them, too, by not giving participants anything to prepare in advance. Instead, we asked students to just show up ready to share their research in an informal environment.

We did, however, ask a couple of members of staff to run a couple of casual sessions. But as we had a “no technology” theme going, no one needed to prepare PowerPoint presentations. Instead, they were asked to share their knowledge, wisdom, and experience in a casual manner. We had staff-led discussions about preparing for the viva and the thesis process, administrative processes within the university, and a discussion about how best to utilise the PhD study spaces and collaborative research room.

We also ran two sessions that were designed to get students talking about their research in a casual manner. The idea was to help people build communication skills so that they could explain their research without preparation—and to a general audience.

On the first evening, Andreas ran a session called “Parrot Party”. For this session, we paired off with someone from outside of our research group. The first person then had three minutes to explain their research to a “listener”. After the three minutes were up, the listener had to explain the first person’s research to a member of staff. The idea is that listening is an important part of communication! (It was harder than it sounds!)

I ran the session on the second evening which was the main presentation opportunity for the retreat. It began shortly before dinner when I produced a box of random items: batteries, yarn, old phones, a tin of beans, a stuffed bear called Randolph, and an odd selection of other things I had laying around my home. The idea was that after dinner, everyone would have five minutes to present their research using at least one item from the box as a prop. Everyone had 15 minutes to look through the box before I closed the lid again. Then, after dinner, the presentations began.

Randolph was the star of the show and was used by nearly all of the presenters as a way of sharing their research. But people used several other props and mostly seemed to enjoy the challenge. Importantly, I think everyone learned new ways of thinking about how best to communicate their research. (A hard task, when you’re not given much time to prepare!)

Overall, I think it was a great retreat. I know it took some students outside of their comfort zone (presenting without PowerPoint!!) but I think it was a good experience for all of us!

Next week is another busy week as I prepare for the School of Computing PhD Research Conference, for which I am a co-chair. I suppose that means I should start thinking about my presentation. After all, I plan to win first place and I can’t do that without a bit of preparation!

Write now!

Yesterday was the official Write Now! launch at Edinburgh Napier University, organised by me and my colleague, Iris Buunk. Write Now! was inspired by the successful Shut Up and Write! meet-ups organised by creative writing groups in San Francisco, something which Iris and I tried to replicate for ourselves by working in area coffee shops.

[In a hurry? Go straight to the “Why is it important?” part.]

However, we believed that—with the right support—we could create and maintain a successful writing group on the Merchiston Campus. But human support wouldn’t be enough—we wanted a small bit of financial support, too, so that we could offer tea and biscuits to our fellow writers. So we applied for a small research development grant from Edinburgh Napier University to help get us started—and thankfully, the university thought we had a good idea, too!

Importantly, other academics seem to think Write Now! is a good idea, too.

Yesterday’s launch saw 15 participants eagerly working on their academic tasks. There was work done on PhD theses and journal articles. Some people used the time to edit papers they were hoping to submit for publications. And some people used the time to fine-tune abstracts or create tables and figures for their documents.

Did they show up for the free biscuits? Maybe. But they stayed to work and the feedback indicates that they will return!

We now have enough money to fund writing sessions through to the end of the semester and are hoping that we might find further support for next year—if we can show that the investment in writing is a good investment for the university.

If you missed yesterday’s session: Don’t worry! We’ll be back next week and you’re welcome to join us!

But why is it important?
Easy: Because committing yourself to a dedicated writing time can help to prioritise the importance of writing whilst facilitating the process.

We figure that, at the most basic level, Write now! will benefit research students and academic staff who participate in the sessions. However, we also believe that this dedicated writing time will encourage participants to work on journal or conference submissions, research grants, and other academic work to help increase the university’s reach and impact within the greater academic research community.

Write now! addresses three of the four domains of the Vitae’s Research Development Framework, as dedication to the writing processes is key to the act of academic research. The primary domain to be addressed is ‘Engagement, influence, and impactin the subdomain ‘communication and dissemination’. As a key component of research is the dissemination of clearly communicated texts, it is vital to show within the university that engaging with the writing process is of great importance. To that, Write now! offers individuals the ability to spend time actively working on effective, written communications—whether in the form of writing abstracts for conference submissions, writing up the findings of an on-going research project, or disseminating findings through articles written for the press or academic blogs and other social media tools.

Additional areas being addressed are knowledge and intellectual abilities as related to creating a stronger knowledge base and developing a higher level of academic literacy and personal effectiveness as it relates to issues of personal time management and the prioritisation of workloads and related tasks.

Join us next Wednesday—and every Wednesday through June:
Triangle Restaurant
2-4 pm
Free drinks and snacks
And don’t forget your laptop (or pen and paper if you’re Old Skool like that!)

IDIMC: A winning conference

I attended the International Data and Information Management Conference in Loughborough (England) this week along with some of my colleagues from Edinburgh Napier University. The conference was a great opportunity to meet with other information science researchers—and to present my own research.

It was also a fantastic opportunity for winning! There were four potential prizes for the conference: Best paper, best poster, best 5-minute madness presentation, and a dinner quiz. And Team Napier won them all! In fact, three of the four were won by me! (I didn’t submit for the fourth, so I’m not bitter about not winning that one.)

In order of prize announcement, here’s how the awards went down:

Dinner Quiz
I was on a team with my officemate, John Mowbray. Our team (Winners or Losers, Delete As Appropriate) won by half a point. Another officemate (Iris Buunk) and my PhD supervisor (Hazel Hall) were on the second place team.

Best 5-minute madness presentation (open to PhD students)
I took this prize (which came with a £25 Amazon gift certificate) for my presentation on my PhD research. It was a quick overview of my research themes, methods, and progress to date. The winner was selected by the conference programme committee at the conference, and I was a bit surprised to have won.

Best poster (open to all)
Iris Buunk took this well-deserved prize for her poster ‘Easier, better, faster’. The winner was selected by a delegate vote at the conference. The poster was very well designed with clear, easy to understand text. It was clearly the winner! (And as I didn’t have a poster, I am not at all bitter about not winning!)

Best paper (open to all)
Much to my surprise (and excitement), the best paper award went to me (and to the paper co-authors Peter Cruickshank, Hazel Hall, and Alistair Lawson). The paper was titled ‘Personal online reputation: the development of an approach to investigate how personal reputation is evaluated and managed in online environments’.

The winner for this category was decided by anonymous peer review of all papers refereed prior to the conference. That means that the award was based on the text and the text alone. Not me as a person; not my presentation of the work. And that is such a great boost for my confidence!

(Read the full paper here or check out the presentation slides here.)

As I said, it was a winning conference. And all that winning has done wonders for my self-confidence and self-esteem. If I can keep this energy up, I’ll be back on track with my PhD submission before I know it!

Also: It really must be said that these great honours would not have happened without the guidance (and co-authorship) of my amazing set of supervisors. So to them, I extend my absolute gratitude!

[Photo credits to Hazel Hall]

Presenting a paper: Assessing the available and accessible evidence

I spent the past week in Aberdeen* for a couple of academic conferences. It was a great experience that allowed me to meet with other information science academics and to present some of my research. And, importantly, it was an opportunity for me to learn a bit about my academic self!

This was my first time delivering a paper at an academic conference and I’m pleased to say that it went quite well—despite my self-esteem-based fears.

My presentation was based on the literature review for my PhD thesis, which concerns how online information contributes to the determination of personal reputations. I worried that my childhood speech problems would trip me up during the presentation or—worse!—that people would think my research was [enter negative descriptors here].

However, other than getting a bit flustered when I was given my “five minutes” warning, I think it went rather well. I didn’t trip over my tongue (though I did have to use my special “speech therapy reminders” for a few words) and people actually seemed interested in my research.

Overall, the week’s activities have left me feeling a bit more confident. I can better see how and where my research fits within the wider domain of information science. I can also better see how I can proceed with my research.

I made some great contacts over the week** and engaged in some wonderful conversations with some well-established academics who seemed to have a bit of enthusiasm about my research. I now have several pages of notes to transcribe—much of which will help me to finalise plans for my pilot study.

Up next is to submit an abstract for another conference and to get my pilot study approved. Then I can go off and finally collect some data. Maybe then I’ll start to feel like a real researcher!

Here is a link to my presentation slides. Please do get in touch if you have any questions about the presentation or my research in general.

* Scotland, not Washington or South Dakota
** I even met with a couple of those contacts in Edinburgh the day after the conference. It was weird playing “local guide” in Edinburgh—as an American! But I do love showing off my adopted home. My “Heartland” as a friend calls it.